An Introduction to the Novel


ENG 343: The American Novel

Lesson 1: An Introduction to the Novel
Aug. 19-23, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Summarize the history of novel.
  • Explain how a novel differs from other literary forms, such as poems and short stories.
  • Identify and practice several effective strategies for studying a novel.
  • Find, quote, paraphrase, summarize, and document credible information about the novel in a library and on the Internet.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), identify the “greatest” novel you have read and explain what makes it great.

Presentation: An Introduction to the Novel (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning:

Ice-breaker: Introduce yourself to the other members of your group by taking on the role, mannerisms, and speech of your favorite novel character.  Have your fellow group members try to guess your character’s identity. 

Literary forms: Explain how a journalist, a poet, a short story writer, a dramatist, or a novelist might handle the subject of life in a small town.  Comment on research, content, and technique.

Presentation: Literary Research (Professor Canada)  Meet in reference area of Sampson-Livermore Library on Friday.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.

Think Again: Using what you have learned about literary research, find an essay or a chapter on the novel by a scholar or a novelist.  In a brief essay (300 words), describe the perfect novel, defending your position with your own ideas, as well as at least one quotation and one paraphrase from the essay or chapter you read.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:

  • Samuel Richardson
  • William Wells Brown
  • Richard Chase
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Henry James
  • William Faulkner
  • fiction
  • narrative
  • prose
  • novel
  • romance
  • popular fiction
  • literature
  • subject encyclopedia
  • scholarly monograph
  • scholarly periodical
  • Internet
  • credibility
  • full quotation
  • partial quotation
  • paraphrase
  • summary
  • attribution
  • parenthetical citation
  • list of works cited


Make sure you are familiar with the following key dates in the history of the novel:


1740: Richardson publishes Pamela

1789: Brown publishes The Power of Sympathy


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:


The American Novel and Its Tradition, written by Richard Chase, discusses a number of American novelists---including Herman Melville, Henry James, and William Faulkner—and argues that the American novel has been characterized by “radical disunities.” 

The Novel, by Richard Freedman, traces the history of the novel.  Written for a general audience, it does not offer extensive analysis, but does provide a useful and highly readable overview of the form’s origins and major authors.

Be Your Best: Reading contains guidance on understanding and interpreting literature.

Be Your Best: Research contains guidance on finding, evaluating, and using sources when writing essays and other forms of argument.

Updated August 1, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Welcome to ENG 343: The American Novel.  I look forward to spending the next 16 weeks with all of you as we explore the fascinating world of the American novel, from its beginnings in the eighteenth century to the present day.  Now that you have read the syllabus carefully, you know that we will be focusing on both the “American” and the “novel” qualities of the works we are studying.  First, however, we will set the stage with a lesson that introduces the history of the novel and outlines some strategies for appreciating a novel.  We will begin with a session on Monday, August 19, 2002, in our regular classroom, Dial 147.  On Friday, August 23, we will meet in the reference area of Sampson-Livermore Library.  Let’s get started!




Unlike poetry and drama, which go back thousands of years to works such as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 B.C.) and the Greek play Oresteia (458 B.C.), the novel is a somewhat recent literary creation.  Lengthy fictional narratives written in prose had appeared sporadically before 1700; examples include the stories in Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1351-1353), the English romancer Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (c. 1469), and Don Quixote (1605, 1615), by Miguel de Cervantes of Spain.  These early precursors aside, some scholars date the birth of the modern novel to the eighteenth century, specifically the publication of the English printer Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740-1742), a long story recounting the trials of an English girl in a battle against a man trying to seduce her.  As Richard Freeman explains in The Novel, Richardson’s book came at an opportune time in English history, as the presence of a literate middle-class, the appearance of London’s first circulating library, printing innovations, and other factors helped prepare the soil for the new genre to grow (12).  Over the next century, English readers saw the publication of many other long fictional narratives, including Richardson’s own Clarissa (1748), Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), Tobias Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) and Humphry Clinker (1771), Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760-1767), and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813).  In general, these books were longer than Boccaccio’s narratives and more unified than Don Quixote.  Furthermore, rather than recount the far-fetched adventures of knights and other idealized heroes and heroines, as Malory’s book does, this new breed of narrative tended to recreate the worlds and everyday lives of ordinary people.  Thus we have the strict definition of a modern novel: a lengthy fictional narrative, written in prose, presenting a realistic picture of believable characters and events.


From these origins, the novel quickly became a popular form in England and elsewhere.  Between 1840, when publishers often offered them to readers in installments, and 1900, virtually all of the most important works of English literature are novels, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-1861), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872), and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891).  In the next century, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and others kept the form alive and well in England.  The novel has flourished elsewhere, as well.  Indeed, over the past three centuries, a number of the major writers in many European countries have been novelists, including James Joyce in Ireland, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann in Germany, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevski in Russia, and Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Marcel Proust in France. 


In the United States, Benjamin Franklin printed Richardson’s Pamela in 1742, but American writers did not begin producing their own novels for another half-century or so.  In 1789, William Hill Brown published The Power of Sympathy, thought by some scholars to be the first novel written in the United States.  It was followed in the next decade or so by other books, notably the gothic novels Wieland (1798) and Edgar Huntly (1799) by Charles Brockden Brown.  America’s first great novelist is James Fenimore Cooper, who from 1821 to 1850 published more than 30 novels, including five featuring the character of Natty Bumppo in an influential series called The Leather-Stocking Tales.  The American novel might be said to have come of age in the early 1850s, when Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville produced their masterpieces, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), each concerned with human psychology and colored by fantastic elements.  In the explosion of realistic novels following the Civil War, writers such as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James tried to capture the psychological conflicts, manners, and even speech of characters from various parts of the country.  The high points of this period include Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881).  On the heels of these realists came several naturalistic novels, including Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), which both depict human beings in conflict with social forces.  A lull of some 25 years then ensued before the beginning of what might be considered the great age of the American novel.  From 1925 to 1955, some of America’s greatest novelists flourished, producing a host of novels exploring materialism, family, race, the Depression, and other rich subjects.  Masterpieces from this Modernist period include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929), William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).  In the era sometimes known as “postmodernist,” the novel has continued to thrive, taking some interesting turns.  Since the 1960s, writers have challenged some conventions of the novel, including even the notion that it should be fiction.  Truman Capote used the term “nonfiction novel” in reference to his masterpiece, In Cold Blood (1966), and writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon have experimented with the form in other ways.  Today the novel is the most popular form of literature in the United States among both writers and readers.  Indeed, virtually all of the most famous writers currently working  in the United States—Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, John Grisham, and others—are known primarily for their novels.


Over the course of this history, the novel has undergone a dramatic development so that now the term “novel” is often broadly defined and applied to such diverse books as bildungsromans by Goethe and Mark Twain, gothic novels by Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, novels of manners by Edith Wharton, protest novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair, adventure tales by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, historical novels by Sir Walter Scott and Margaret Mitchell, mysteries by Agatha Christie, horror novels by Stephen King, legal thrillers by John Grisham, science fiction by Isaac Asimov, romance novels by Barbara Cartland, and Westerns by Louis L’Amour.  Perhaps the most notable development to take place in these three centuries has been a movement away from verisimilitude.  Despite the early associations of the novel with realism, some of the world’s greatest novels contain sketchy descriptions, far-fetched plots, unrealistic dialogue, and idealized characters.  Indeed, Richard Chase suggests in The American Novel and Its Tradition that some of America’s greatest novels might properly called romances.  In distinguishing between these two forms, Chase writes:


Doubtless the main difference between the novel and the romance is the way in which they view reality.  The novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail.  It takes a group of people and sets them going about the business of life.  We come to see these people in their real complexity of temperament and motive.  They are in explicable relation to nature, to each other, to their social class, to their own past.  Character is more important than action and plot, and probably the tragic or comic actions of the narrative will have the primary purpose of enhancing our knowledge of and feeling for an important character, a group of characters, or a way of life.  The events that occur will usually be plausible, given the circumstances, and if the novelist includes a violent or sensational occurrence in his plot, he will introduce it only into such scenes as have been (in the words of Percy Lubbock) ‘already prepared to vouch for it.’  Historically, as it has often been said, the novel has served the interests and aspirations of an insurgent middle class.


By contrast the romance, following distantly the medieval example, feels free to render reality in less volume and detail.  It tends to prefer action to character, and action will be freer in a romance than in a novel, encountering, as it were, less resistance from reality. . . . The romance can flourish without providing much intricacy of relation.  The characters, probably rather two-dimensional types, will not be complexly related to each other or to society or to the past.  Human beings will on the whole be shown in ideal relation—that is, they will share emotions only after these have become profoundly involved in some way, as in Hawthorne or Melville, but it will be a deep and narrow, an obsessive, involvement.  In American romance, it will not matter much what class people come from, and where the novelist would arouse our interest in a character by exploring his origin, the romancer will probably do so by enveloping it in mystery.  Character itself becomes, then, somewhat abstract and ideal, so much so in some romances that it seems to be merely a function of plot.  The plot we may expect to be highly colored.  Astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have a symbolic or ideological, rather than a realist, plausibility. Being less committed to the immediate rendition of reality than the novel, the romance will more freely veer toward mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms.  (13)


Hawthorne himself makes a similar distinction in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables (1851), where he explains:


When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.  The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.  The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.  (351)


Novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, then, may seem fanciful, even dreamy, but they nevertheless explore various aspects of something we might call “truth.” 


Appreciating a Novel


Why would anyone want to read a lengthy account of something that never happened?  What does a novel have to offer both its writer and its reader?  The answer, of course, will depend partially on the writer, the reader, and the book itself, but most certainly one reason is entertainment.  As Janice Radway notes in Reading the Romance, her study of the romance novel and its readers, some novels provide their readers with a form of escape.  On one level, Harlequin romances, historical novels, Westerns, science fiction, and spy thrillers appeal to people precisely because they differ so markedly from their comparatively humdrum lives.  That many of these novels are extremely formulaic may matter little to their devoted readers, who indeed may appreciate the comfort that comes in knowing that the lovers will live happily ever after or that the hero will prevail in the end.  In some cases, mystery novels may offer a similar form of escape, although this genre has the added attraction of giving readers a puzzle to unravel and thus are akin to crosswords and other tests of one’s mental faculties.  For the sake of classification, we might say that novels that serve primarily to entertain belong to the category of popular fiction.


Some novels, including all of the ones we will read in this course, appeal to readers on a level other than entertainment.  Some, such as Twain’s rollicking Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Capote’s compelling In Cold Blood, contain some of the same elements found in popular fiction—humor, suspense, adventure—and may indeed be entertaining to read, while others seem to exhibit all the drama of the dreariest of diaries by the dreariest of diarists.  Entertaining or not, all of these novels have one thing in common: they engage their readers’ intellectual faculties and immerse them in the world of ideas.  Many novels, for example, address subjects of social significance: class, race, politics, even economics.  Some of these books, notably Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Sinclair’s The Jungle, are clearly didactic, while others may simply explore social issues without exhibiting any obvious agenda.  Other novels are more personal or psychological, seeking to explore human relationships, conflicts, desires, and fears.  These books seem to appeal to readers in the way described in the biographical film Shadowlands, in which a student of the writer and scholar C.S. Lewis suggests that people read so that they will know that they are not alone.  Still others, sometimes called “novels of ideas,” are philosophical and frequently feature lengthy expository speeches by characters in dialogue about some concept.  Many novels show more than one of these features.  In any case, readers of these novels seek not just enjoyment, but enrichment, and they find it in these books’ skillfully drawn pictures of reality, complex and fascinating characters, and provocative questions and ideas.  In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James argues that the novel exists “to attempt to represent life” (188).  We can say that novels that represent life in all its complexity belong to the realm of literature, a kind of writing that William Faulkner said should concern “the verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” (575). 


Because they emerge out of the combination of personalities, social groups and classes, settings, and political and economic forces that make up a culture, furthermore, reading novels can provide remarkable insights into this culture and even into a people’s mindset.  Chase, for instance, has argued that the American novel differs considerably from the English novel, which he says “follows the tendency of tragic art and Christian art, which characteristically move through contradictions to forms of harmony, reconciliation, catharsis, and transfiguration” (2).  “Judging by our greatest novels,” Chase writes, “the American imagination, even when it wishes to assuage and reconcile the contradictions of life, has not be stirred by the possibility of catharsis or incarnation, by the tragic or Christian possibility.  It has been stirred, rather, by the aesthetic possibilities of radical forms of alienation, contradiction, and disorder” (2).  As we read some of America’s most important novels, we will want to see whether we can detect this strain or perhaps discover others.


Entertaining almost by definition, popular novels require no special preparation, aside from an ability to read and some patience.  Literature, on the other hand, often challenges readers to follow relatively slow-paced plots, to study subtle psychological traits, and to find or to make meaning out of complex symbols, explicit or implicit allusions, and intricate patterns.  One might be able to read and even to enjoy some of the more entertaining literary novels, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, without doing a lot of this extra work, but truly appreciating literary novels—that is, experiencing some of the richness that their authors have invested in them—requires work.  Like the effort that goes into playing a musical instrument or building something useful, such work can be immensely rewarding if done effectively—and immensely frustrating if not.


Some strategies can help you get the most out of the novels you read in this class and, indeed, out of the literature you read in other courses and in your life.  First, when reading a literary novel, make sure that you understand its surface meaning; that is, know who the characters are, how they relate to one another, where they are living, and what they are doing.  Use marginal notes to mark the introductions of characters, descriptions of the setting, and key incidents in the plot.  Second, explore the significance beneath these surface features, as well as any allusions, striking metaphors, or enigmatic or suggestive objects.  Continually ask yourself questions such as these: Why did she say that?  How would this story be different if it took place somewhere else?  What associations does this watch—or door or bird or other possible symbol—conjure up?  The answers to these questions almost always will give you insights into the “deeper meaning” of a literary novel.  Third, look for lines, shapes, and patterns.  If the characters are traveling somewhere, where do they wind up?  Who and what changes in the novel, and what might the changes mean?  What words, phrases, or images reappear in the novel, and what do they suggest?  Finally, take the time to reflect on all of this material, not only making marginal comments as you read, but also synthesizing these comments—along with your unwritten thoughts—and writing more detailed notes and even brief essays elsewhere, in a notebook or a computer file.  You will find a great deal of guidance in this process of making meaning out of literature, I think, in my lessons and in our course activities.  Like this one, the lessons I post on the World Wide Web for this course feature thought-provoking questions, lists of names and terms, chronologies, lists of relevant resources, and contextual essays designed to illuminate the personal and historical forces that helped to shape the novels are reading.  While I hope that these lessons will set the stage for our explorations, the real learning will take place when you actively engage in studying the novels yourselves.  To this end, we will spend our class time responding to the novels through essays, presentations, discussions, and other activities.


There is one other component to the study and appreciation of novels, and that is research.  In addition to interacting with one another in class, we will be using the library and the Internet to explore research done by experts on the various authors and on the novel itself.  Specifically, we will practice finding, evaluating, and using sources such as subject encyclopedias, scholarly monographs and periodicals, and credible Internet sites to track down both factual and interpretive information that can help illuminate the novels we are studying.

Works Cited

Chase, Richard.  The American Novel and Its Tradition.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.

Faulkner, William.  Speech of Acceptance for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.  Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia.  Sixth Edition.  New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Freeman, Richard.  The Novel.  New York: Newsweek Books, 1975.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  Preface.  The House of the Seven Gables.  Nathaniel Hawthorne: Collected Novels.  New York: Library of America, 1965.  351-353.

James, Henry.  “The Art of Fiction.”  The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism.  New York: Penguin, 1987.

Radway, Janice.  Reading the Romance.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.


In this lesson, we have examined the history and definition of the novel, looked at some of its variations, touched on some strategies for appreciating literary novels, and begun practicing literary research.  In our next lesson, we will begin our study of the American novel with an exploration of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers.  You will want to keep the material in this lesson in mind as we study this novel and the ones that follow it in the coming weeks.  In particular, think about how these books fit in the overall history of the novel, what variations they represent, what they reveal about the American mind and culture, and what strategies can help us to make meaning out of them.


Chase says that the American novel developed out of the tradition of the English novel, but that in the late 1800s it drew on Russian and French models (3).




Chase: “The English novel, one might say, has been a kind of imperial enterprise, an appropriation of reality with the high purpose of bringing order to disorder.  By contrast, as Lawrence observed in his Studies in Classic American Literature, the American novel has usually seemed content to explore, rather than to appropriate and civilize, the remarkable and in some ways unexampled territories of life in the New World and to reflect its anomialize and dilemmas.  It has not watned to build an imperioum but merely to discover a new place a an ndew state of mind.  Explorers seem more deeply, darkly, primvatley, and idsiinterestedly than imperialists, who must perforce be circumspect and prudential” (5).


Chase attributes the “radical disunities” in the American novel to three origins: “First, there is the solitary position man has been place in in this country, a position very early enforced by the doctrines of Puritanism and later by frontier conditions and, as Tocqueville skillfully pointed out, by the very institutions of demoacry as these evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (11).  The second factor, according to Chase, is “the Manichaean quality of New England Puritanism” (11).  “For, at least as apprehended by the literary imagination, New England Puritanism—with is grand metaphors of election and deamnation, it s poposition of the kindgom of light and the kingdom of darkness, its eternal and autonomous contrarires of good and evil—seems to have recaptured the Manichaen sensibility.  The American imagiation, like the new England Puritan mind itself, seems less interested in the redemption than in the melodrama of the eternal struggle of good and evil, less interested in incarnation and reconciliation than in alienation and disorder” (11).  Finally, Chase notes: “More obviously, a third source of contradiction lies in the dual allegiance of the American, who in his intellectual culture belongs both to the Old World and the New” (12).


Chase argues that American novelists have made effective use of melodrama, arguing that “it is in the skillful use of this relatively inferior art form for purposes beyond the rendition of extravagant and sensational happenings that the American novelists have excelled.  They have known, for example, how to take advantage of the abstractess of melodrma and its capacity to evoke ulimates and absolutes, in order to dramatize theological, moral, and less frequently political ideology.  In the capacity of this literary form to adduce opposites and contraries, they have ssen the chance to create effective ironies.  And in its capacty to elicit in its preculiarly striking way the dark side of consciousness they have discovered new ways to evoke complex mental and emotional states and new dramatic contexts for psychological and moral analysis” (39).


Chase: “No writer can conceive of a fully convincing aristocratic, tragic, or religious culture, or any other culture, unless he can imagine, like Sophocles, Moliere, Shakespeare, Dante, or Henry James (to put him for a moment in very great company), a fully developed woman of sexual age.  This Cooper cannot do, nor could any other American novelist until the age of James and Edith Wharton.  This is a shocking and perhaps unprecedented bias” (64).

Respect for life

Chase: “Thus a fundamental moral question in Cooper, and in American fiction generally, is one of piety; characters are judged according to whether they have reverence for life, especially for wild, innocent, untainted life, whether this may appear in a deer on the prairie, a whale in the Pacific, or in an excellent and complicated young American woman on her travels in Europe” (63).

James’s “Art of Fiction” for discussion of novel


Chase, Richard.  The American Novel and Its Tradition.  Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957.